Today was the day that’s been in the making for a couple of months now: ‘Interruptions: ways to know the medieval at Bradwell’. (I blogged about our planning visit to the site a couple of weeks ago).
The event was planned as part the Colm Cille’s Spiral project (find out more about that here), and involved six Phd candidates and me presenting our research interests in innovative ways, responding to the site of St Peter-on-the-wall at Bradwell-on-Sea, using it as an inspirational backdrop or starting point. The brief was to encourage conversations about the medieval without the need to write an essay or present a formal paper, whilst thinking about ideas of ‘Ethical Knowledge’. Again, take a look at the Colm Cille website for more background info.
Our guests – a mixture of people from the art world, academia, and my mum and dad (!) – arrived at the site to find the presentees dotted around the chapel site, at different ‘stations’. Outside the door to the chapel, guests were given an ‘interrupted map’, a selection of words and images of manuscripts, to encourage them to explore the site and locate Anglo-Saxon words. Other Anglo-Saxon words dotted the site, with no translations given, and guests were encouraged to ‘feel through’ the meaning of them.
Inside the chapel, one station encouraged guests to rethink their ideas of the human within a built or natural environment, and exploring ideas of Anglo-Saxon ‘human trees’ and ‘non-human humans’ (being encouraged to leave a ‘tree’ propped against an area of the space which felt most human to them). Another station involved an exchange of stories of forgotten women: guests were presented with a pile of shells on which they could write a name of a ‘forgotten’ woman from their life, and, once they had written their name and told their story, they were presented with a piece of driftwood with an Anglo-Saxon woman’s name on, and that woman’s story was told.
Returning to the outside, and circling the chapel, our visitors were met by another student, and asked to contemplate their exile. Shown their position outside the chapel, not quite at the sea, their gaze was directed around the site, to the roof of the chapel, to the sea beyond, and Anglo-Saxon illustrations of heaven and hell provided thinking points.
I was waiting at a spot further away from the chapel. I gave each guest an mp3 player loaded with lines 91-102 from that Old English poem known as ‘The Seafarer’, and walked them in single file through the meadow, along the coast, to an area of the site where the sea and chapel are equally distant. I asked them what it was like walking in this old place, listening to this old poem. Did they feel like they learned anything about the past in doing so? Was the Old English strange, or did it have, to use Chris Jones’ words, a ‘strange likeness’?
My guests’ responses were incredibly interesting and conversation really flowed. I was intrigued to hear that some listeners felt an urge to try and understand the Old English, whilst other simply ‘understood’ the sounds, the feelings generated by them, without a desire for translation. One guest spoke of feeling like he was listening to something which was part of his own past and history. I was reminded of the sense of ownership which Ezra Pound clearly felt over the poem, as he imagined an over-zealous monk adding Christian rhetoric to an otherwise pagan poem, and so, in his translation published in The New Age in 1911, Pound felt within his rights to simply disregard the last section of the poem, the prayer-like address to God.
Discussing Pound created an easy transition to discussing the purposes and achievements of translating Old English poetry. I told them about the ways that translations of Old English poetry are marketed to the public: how Kevin Crossley-Holland writes in his introduction to The Anglo Saxon World (a book entirely of translations from Old English, with no original Old English text actually inside):
“These texts introduce the Anglo-Saxons in their own words”
How the publishers of the Word Exchange (an anthology of translations from Old English poems, using a facing-page layout) promise on its dust jacket:
“These poems are a vivid window into a faraway world… so like and so unlike our own. The Word Exchange is an essential introduction to Anglo-Saxon literature”
I asked my guests, can we really know anything about the Anglo-Saxons by listening to this poetry? Can we know anything about Anglo-Saxon culture by reading one modern translation of a poem? Do we need to do more? What knowledge is gained, or what is lost in reading Anglo-Saxon poetry in translation? Perhaps scholars and teachers of Old English should not simply lament that not everyone will ever be able to translate the poem for themselves, but revel in the possibilities of translation to do more than simply echo the past, to help us think through other things – the nature of poetry, of a shifting culture, of what exactly we are talking about when we talk about ‘The Seafarer’.
To finish, I handed out a sheet to each guest with four versions of lines 91-102 of ‘The Seafarer’ on it. We read through the poems aloud, all at once, and it was an enthralling experience reading aloud and hearing these other Seafarers at the same time, the Old English sometimes interrupting the English versions, with words such as sin/synne, God/ Godes, and of course gold standing out to the modern ear. Sometimes two or more of the poems matched, almost exactly, and other times the mangle of voices vividly illustrated the multiplicitous creative potential that modern poets have found within the Anglo-Saxon poem.
No answers, as such, were reached in our discussion of the above questions, but it felt exciting and new to be talking through them with people who haven’t been studying the poem.
As the evening drew in and our lecturers wrapped up the event, it seemed that our guests, and all of us, took away lots of different things from the ‘interruptions’. Scholars thought of new ways to approach questions, remembering that the human, and real people who once lived, are at the centre of what we study. Even the chaplain of Bradwell-on-Sea said she re thought the very space which she leads services in, and would think more deeply and differently about the stories of the past inherent in the stones.
For me, it was a challenging but exciting opportunity. I was anxious that my ‘interruption’ wouldn’t make sense, that I wouldn’t be able to talk about the troubles and possibilities surrounding translation in an interesting way. However, working on the project with the group of Phd students not only helped me develop the ways I think about my own work, but gave me a really personal insight into the exciting world that Phd candidates at King’s are creating.